by Frangiski Ambatzopoulou

As published in Volume 9, No 3, Sept 2012

The history of literary translation is, inter alia, a perpetual discussion on the subject of the quality of the translated texts in relation to the original. How far can the translation render the original? To what extent should the translation faithfully follow the words, the meanings and the tone of the original? Should the translation, in the end, have the aesthetic perfection of an original work, and be read as such, albeit thanks to the liberties the translator will take? The dilemma “translation word for word or sense for sense”, as Horace and Cicero first posed it, immediately taking a stand against slavish word for word translation, is not however the only one which the translator faces and, therefore, someone studying the translations.

Frangiski Ambatzopoulou

Frangiski Ambatzopoulou

At this point, permit me to describe a personal experience of translating: a few years ago I translated the Confessions of Augustine. Apart from the Latin original and the relevant studies in the Bibliotheca Augustiniana for the clarification of various matters, I had in mind and frequently consulted the scholarly French and English translations of this work as well as an older Greek one. None of these aids could, however, assist me in the matter which exercised me most: how to render the prayers in the text in current Modern Greek. In what language do the Greeks of today pray in writing? As I proceeded with this enquiry, I discussed the problem with an English friend of mine, an experienced translator, who told me that the best translation of this work into English was made in the Victorian era because this present age “doesn’t pray.”

On faithfulness and translatability

In Horace’s statement about a translation non verbum de verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensu, i.e. not word for word but in accordance with the sense, which St Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, repeated in almost the same words (magis sensum e sensu, quam ex verbo verbum transferre), and which since then the translators of the western literary tradition have repeated in different ways for centuries, the problem of faithfulness occupies a central position. Since then the discussion on translation has revolved round this axis while today, in parallel, it has broadened and is orientated towards related subjects such as the emphasis which the translator gives to the source language and the target language respectively. Thus, we talk about ethnocentric, philological, literary or free translations, almost always coming back to the ascertainment that traditore tradutore, i.e. that the translator betrays.

Alongside this discussion, however, there unfolded another in the early years of Christianity: are the texts translatable? How is the Word of God, the divine, revelatory word, translated? How will all the mysteries “spoken” by the spirit be translated? “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men but unto God; for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.” (1 Corinthians, 14,2). How to convey the words which the disciples heard from the mouth of Jesus, in a language that may perish? At this point, the descent of the Holy Ghost to the Apostles was offered by Christian dogma as an ideal solution. Of course this favour has not been granted to all translators and, for the Apostle Paul, translation is blasphemy: “Greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.” (ibid. v.5). It is a prohibition which continues to this day and which led to our own Evangelika in 1901.2

The problem of translatability occupied writers and thinkers alongside that of the faithfulness of the translation. Of course, each era adopted its own prevailing position, projected its own needs and imposed its own sanctions. For example, in the Middle Ages, an error in translation could lead to the Inquisition and the flames, while other eras welcomed and applauded what we today call theft of intellectual property. The Romans systematically exploited others’ property, translating, paraphrasing or imitating Greek authors. For them, the act of translating was equivalent to the act of literary creation. In translating, the Romans appropriated an entire civilisation. From then on, this was steadily repeated in the history of western civilisation: the translation of the Bible and Greek and Latin texts into the national languages of Europe contributed to the acquisition of intellectual wealth and powers of expression by these languages and was the precondition for their development and maturing.

In the Renaissance, as George Steiner observes, translation was bound up with, shaped and gave orientation to intellectual life. It was the primary material of the imagination. Furthermore it was the logical connection between the past and the present and between different languages and traditions which were divided and forcibly separated under the pressure of national consciousness and religious conflict.

In 1540, Etienne Dolet published a short essay on translation: La manière de bien traduire d’une langue en autre, in which he set down the following principles: the translator must render in full the sense of the original, although he can freely intervene to interpret and to clarify obscurities. He must have perfect knowledge of the two languages, i.e. in modern terminology, the source language and the target language. He must avoid word for word translation and use forms of speech in current use. Finally, the translator must choose and place the words in a way which will produce the correct tone. For these ideas of his, applied to a dialogue of Plato, Dolet was tried and executed for heresy. (McGuire, 54)

In 1680, John Dryden, in his prologue to his translation of Ovid’s Epistulae, distinguishes three types of translation: a. Translation word for word, b. Paraphrase in the spirit of Horace and Cicero, i.e. with emphasis on giving the sense, and c. Imitation, i.e. the case where the translator in effect moves away from the original and, essentially, writes a work of his own. Dryden himself, when translating Virgil, preferred the second type, the paraphrase, in the belief that Virgil would have written like that had he been alive then (Dryden, 212).

In 1791, Alexander Fraser Tytler expressed the view in The Principles of Translation that the translation should be a full transcription of the idea of the original text. The tone and manner of writing must follow the character of the original while at the same time all the ease of the original composition must be preserved. (McGuire, 63)

From the discussion on faithfulness which occupied the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the German romantics at the beginning of the 19th century – Goethe, Herder, Novalis and chiefly Schleiermacher and Humboldt – would return to the discussion about translatability in a new, methodological, epistemological framework. Every communication is a translation, they constantly repeat, bringing the discussion into the realm of philosophy, as later Jakobson and the Russian formalists brought it into that of linguistics.

Goethe, who translated from nine languages, formulated the theory of three phases of translation which correspond to different stages of civilisation, but which can also co-exist, and are described as the phase of childhood, in which the foreign texts are only externally accessible (for example the translation of the Bible by Luther), the phase of adolescence, in which we appropriate the foreign text  through substitution and reproduction and, finally, the ideal phase in which the translator aims at  complete identification between the source language and the target language, and also the equivalence of the translation and the original. The ideal translator, for Novalis, is “the poet of poetry” (Steiner, 269). We recognise a similar thought in the excellent essay by the philosopher Walter Benjamin on the work of the translator. Benjamin, a translator of Baudelaire, writes: “The translator’s task is to set free in his own language the pure language which is in the magic power of the foreign language, to liberate the language imprisoned in the work by rewriting it.” (Benjamin, 261). Poems are not translated: they are re-written, said one of the Greek saints of translation, Aris Alexandrou.

The activity of translating at the beginning of our century internationalised us and contributing to this were the conditions of the circulation of books and the creation of a wider reading public on the one hand, which created new needs in the market, and the strengthening of interest in the ancients on the other, an interest rekindled thanks to the romantic and classical movements.

In relation to the activity of translating in this period two main trends are distinguished, which we will try to describe in general terms. The first is represented by the translators who give emphasis to the value of the original text, i.e. to the source language, and aim to encourage the reader to return to this without claiming to be replacing it. Such translations of the ancients are intended mainly for school use and we call them “handy” or “philological”. The second is represented by the translators who aspire to offer their own version and interpretation of the original, frequently actively intervening, because what interests them is the national language into which they are translating, i.e. the target language. These translations, often the work of accomplished writers, we usually call “literary”.

Literary translation in Greece

With the works it selects for translation and the views on translation it adopts, each generation reveals not only its literary preferences but also the current perceptions of literary creation. A history of literary translation in Greece should answer the threefold question when examining the different chronological periods: a. Which works are translated? b. Why are they translated? c. How are they translated?

In accordance with the above proposed approach we could divide the history of literary translation in Greece into periods which correspond to those of the history of Modern Greek literature. An important source in such an investigation is the prologues to the translations, because in these the translators explain their choices and state their problems. For this reason we can consider the prologues as both valuable and primary material for a Greek theory of translation. From a first examination we ascertain that what steadily occupies Greek translators till the 19th century is the selection of appropriate works for translation from ancient or west European literature, and this choice is made according to the criterion of their educational character, i.e. their usefulness. The translators look for educational works, in the spirit of the intellectual improvement of the race and national revolution, while at the same time they aim at the enrichment of the language “with words, with phrases, with manners of speech, with tropes and metaphors”, which a national language lacks “when it is not cultivated” (Neoteri Geographia, 78)

As regards the way they translated, i.e. the third question of our enquiry, the translators confine themselves to commenting on their preference for the form of the Greek language which they use, i.e. demotic or katharevousa. As a rule they argue vigorously for their choice of demotic, often in militant prologues. This phenomenon is of course explained by the pressing need for the creation of a national language and a national literature, which the intellectual pioneers and teachers of the race felt to be a primary obligation. Translation took on the character of an educational activity of national importance and aimed not only at the enrichment of our literature with works of ancient Greek literature or philosophical texts written in European languages and translated into demotic, but also at the cultivation and enrichment of the unwrought linguistic organ of Modern Greek. In 1544, when Nikolaos Sofianos translated Plutarch’s Moralia, he explained that the translation was dictated by expediency and declared that in this way he was making a contribution so that  “the pitiful race might be renewed and roused from so much ignorance” (Sofianos, 260-261).

At the end of the 18th century, alongside the matter of language, another side of didacticism appeared, the preaching of new morals. The translations by Katartzis, Philippides, Konstantas and Moisiodakas, of clearly educational character, were succeeded by the translations of Rigas, Mitio Sakellariou and others, who shifted their interests from works of reflection to works of myth-making. Thus, Dante and Goldoni are translated next to Locke, Descartes and Voltaire. As K. Th. Demaras observes, the literary works are translated because they teach happiness by means of virtue. Brave and free virtue must take the place of timid prudence. The issue, now, is not one of preaching morals but of ethology (Demaras, 153). The anonymous translator of Metastasio, in 1779, defends his diligence and the charm of erotic subjects, while in the same decade Rigas, translating the L’école des amans delicats, writes in the prologue: “My keenness, to give a vague idea of the delightful readings in Europe, which both give pleasure and also in some way rectify morals, motivated me to undertake the translation of these stories, in order to give pleasure and also benefit to my reader.” (Rigas,1). It is self evident that, by means of this reasoning, a format appears in which amusement is combined with edification and also benefit to the nation.

“To amuse and at the same time teach” 

Ioannis Velaras introduces a new question about translation which is an extension of that of language in matters of stylistic and aesthetic effect. The scholar from Ioannina, in the prologue to a translation of the Batrochomyomachia, observes that slavish word for word translation is impossible in poetry, “just as it is useless in prose”. The above reasoning shows the interest of the translator not only in the language but also in the matter of faithfulness (Velaras, 161).

Up to the end of the 19th century in Greece, the educational and national work of translation remains the focus of the discussions but, at the same time, translation as an artistic creation is also being discussed. In this spirit D. Pantazis translates the Night Thoughts of Young (1835) and Panayiotis Panas translates Ossian (1862) into demotic, in translations which are not distinguished for their respect for the original. We recognise the ideas of the German thinkers and writers in the views of Iakovos Polylas, a translator of Homer and Shakespeare: “Of course poetic translations suppose quite a lot of imaginative power and enthusiasm, and only when they partake of these lofty qualities are they no longer considered mechanical work but as artistic and able to contribute to the taming and ennoblement of the language (…) especially when a literature, like ours, is moving from its period of childhood to that of its youth …” (Polylas, 306). Elsewhere, however, in his prologue to Hamlet, he thinks that in such undertakings “…a uniform language is born, destined to be the oral and written discourse of the entire nation” (Polylas, 203)

If the first teachers of the race translated the ancient classics, a flood of translations of foreign literary works could now be seen in newspapers and literary magazines. Criticism continued to occupy itself, however, with the usefulness of these texts confining the problem to the arena of the conflict of language and kept it there for many decades, even until the middle of the 20th century.

At the end of the 19th century literary translation really flourished and, indeed, with works from the pen of Emmanuel Roidis and Demetrios Vikelas. Without doubt Roidis would have agreed with Edward FitzGerald, the translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, that “a live sparrow is preferable to a dead eagle.” The author of Pope Joan had aligned himself with creative translation sensum de sensu from his first published work, which was the translation of Chateaubriand’s Itinéraires (1860). Yet the “metamorphosis of the trees into posts”, as Roidis calls barren philological translation, borrowing the phase from Jules Janin, was something earlier avoided by the Greek translators, usually writers themselves and often the most creative, although they took many liberties. First and foremost they were interested in the target language, i.e. the demotic language in its flourishing literary use.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the most militant moment of demoticism is stamped with the translations of Alexander Pallas, which included the Iliad and the New Testament. In 1898, Konstantinos Hatzopoulos’ magazine Techni was published, in which German romantics were translated, and immediately afterwards, in 1901, Dionysos in which most of the texts were translations of foreign works and original works were fewer. The translators for the magazine do not comment on the way they translate. What is important for them, we surmise, is the transplantation of foreign intellectual movements, ideas and styles, through mainly German works (of Goethe, Nietzsche and Novalis) and also works of Ibsen and Strindberg, by Hatzopoulos, Kamvyses and Gryparis. In many poems we read under the title the words “Rough Translation”.

In this period the work of translator is undertaken mainly by the poets, who “translate by rewriting”, but conscientiously: Kleon Paraschos embodies in his poems the translation of Baudelaire. Kostas Palamas called his own efforts at translating “re-set music”. In his article, written in 1921, we read: “Someone translates the foreign text as he translates his feeling and thought which are, or which he thinks are, his own. The translation is only worth what the translator is worth” (Palamas, XVI, 558). In his prologue to Xanatonismeni mousiki, he comments that the translators who alter verses “may even unintentionally hold them more in the air than they would wish; these unfaithful translators are from another point of view also the most faithful” (Palamas, XI, 201).

The same frenzy of translation continues till the decade of the thirties. Kostas Varnalis, Vassos Daskalakis, Nikos Kazanakis, Markos Avgeris, Panayis Lekatsas, Fotis Kontoglou, Mitsos Papanicolaou, Emm. Sphakianakis, Kaisar Emmanuel and Tellos Agras all translate. It would be exceptionally interesting for someone to “ask” each of them separately – that is to unlock their work by attempting a parallel and comparative study of their translations with their original creations – who, why and how they translated, i.e. the threefold question which relates to our methodological prerequisite, and which must be put in the same way to all the writers who also have translated so that we can acquire a clearer picture of the history of literary translation in Greece.

The trap of monophony

Throughout the 20th century the translators continued to come from the ranks of the poets, that is, as Roidis would say, “With their pens still wet from the writing of an original work.” Demotic was established in literary translations and there was minimisation of solecisms or the “outlandish forms” as the linguistic extremes of the purists were called by the sharp-witted author of the Eidola, whose views on the language of translation and, generally, on the literary language, can be read today in a framework of different and topical questioning. To what extent however were they minimised?

Roidis was the first author in Greece to touch on the subject of polyphony in the novel and consequently the particularity of the language of myth-making, drawing it from the contradistinction of demotic-katharevousa. In his prologue to the Eidola he emphasises that in the novel the characters must speak according to their class and origin. “The perpetual collaborators of the writer are everywhere the scientist and the porter, the townsman and the villager, the judge and the accused, the preacher and the pickpocket, the wit and the cleverest man in the street, the modest housewife and the inmate of the brothel” (Roidis, IV,106). Elsewhere in the same prologue he says: “These coarse and vulgar expressions of Aristophanes, Xenarchos, Hipponax and Herondas twenty five centuries ago are incomparably more noble and lofty than the metaphysics of Plato and Proclus, because much more turning of the pages of the dictionary, notes and commentaries is required for us to manage to enjoy their vulgarity and scurrility” (Roidis, IV, 104).

The above comments lead us to a central problem of translation choices in the militant period of demoticism, where the absence of polyphony appears in parallel with the question of an artificial uniformity of the Greek language, whether of the katharevousa of the purists or of the demotic of the followers of Psycharis.

Linguistic uniformity is a form of purism. What holds good for the translations of Mistriotis also holds good for the translations of the early demoticists: often, if not always, the multiple records are lost, the codes of human speech. We could speak of linguistic monopolies, which are accompanied by a distribution of competences which had taken roughly the following form and which we can describe as follows:

Katharevousa appears identified with the discourse of power, a discourse which is moralistic, anti-erotic, but also the official language of academic knowledge. In contrast, demotic becomes synonymous with the language of the people, the language of daily speech, therefore with a language which is useful, which from one period and thereafter is chosen by the political parties with a popular revolutionary base, and not necessarily only the socialist one (Moschonas, 44-87). Thus with these uses and the corresponding symbolisms, both languages, equally monophonically orientated, proceeded along parallel paths.

The demotic of the representatives of the generation of the thirties, as has been accurately observed, moved in a similar spirit and is distinguished for its regulating character. The same holds good for their translations, with George Seferis as the case in point.

The words of the Greek language – I am talking about the situation before the establishment of demotic in education after the political changeover – were entered in different registers: for science katharevousa was fitting, while the language of daily dealings and useful objects was demotic. It was not, therefore, strange that these registers co-existed in literary texts precisely as they co-existed in the daily life of people before the dictatorship.

The intervention of the surrealists

Many years had to pass before compromise was achieved – such as happened in the work of the surrealists, Andreas Empeirikos and Nikos Engonopoulos – which followed the intervention of the generation of the thirties, which finally settled the matter. The two surrealists boldly tried to make a stand against linguistic monopolies. This predisposition of theirs is evident from their first literary appearance in 1935 and 1938 respectively, and also from the first translations they made, in the well-known volume Surrealism (1938), in which they translated poems by André Breton and Tristan Tzara.

The great step, the boldest, was taken by Empeirikos in Megalo Anatoliko. In this work the poet tried to overcome the moralising connotations of katharevousa, using it in an erotic-pornographic novel. The size of the book is not, I believe, unrelated to the colossal attempt of Empeirikos to cleanse katharevousa  of the myth of a one-sided, moralising purism, but at the same time to cleanse demotic of the myth of exclusivity of the loose speech of the streets, extending his “pornographic” – as well as didactic, at least with regard to the linguistic question – narrative to thousands of pages, more or less like a programme of intensive education. Of course the erotic language of Empeirikos does not cease to have elements of the language of the office, like the earlier attempts of a Psycharis. But the difference is obvious: Empeirikos aspires to fusion not fission.

Nikos Engonopoulos had a similar attitude towards the Greek language, which he considered unified and used as such, creating a particular idiom which boldly drew on the centuries-old linguistic tradition, without excluding the co-existence of different linguistic forms.

I will conclude with an example which will illumine the above to an extent. It concerns the translation of passages from the Les chants de Maldoror of Lautréamont, by Odysseas Elytis and Nikos Engonopoulos. Elytis published this translation in Defteri graphi (1976), a collection of his older translations. In the prologue to the book he comments: “It is one thing for someone to translate the poems he loves and of those again the ones he thinks most suitable, and another to limit himself necessarily to certain works, whether for historical reasons, because they represent an era, a specific trend, or for aesthetic reasons because they relate to a unity which it is not right to break up.” And he concludes: “With time and experience I have come to believe in free rendering rather than faithful translation” (Elytis, 11). Egnopoulos, in a corresponding note, explains that he translated Lautréamont in 1944 at the home of Empeirikos (Engonopoulos, 223 – 224).

Let us come now to Lautréamont’s text. It is one in which par excellence many different levels of language co-exist: scientific terminology, as it would appear in a school handbook, the language of lyrical exaltation, prose narrative, description and dialogues. It is a text which is exceptionally violent, of continual metamorphoses, where the appropriate language is at its zenith. We are literally in the kingdom of the poetic image, as Pierre Reverdy defines it, which is constructed of metaphors and similes, in the language of “comme”. The 184 animals which Gaston Bachelard counted in this work are continually combined with the human body in incredible variations of metamorphoses and anthropomorphisms.

If we compare passages from the two translations, we can ascertain the following: Elytis, although he uses words of katharevousa, seems to place his endeavour rather in a spirit of usefulness, as he states in his prologue. He has not noticeably grasped the polyphony of Lautréamont, and he does not try to render it in the Greek. The text fascinates him, but he interprets it as a lyrical work and he translates it accordingly, drawing on early demotic, the polished language par excellence of lyric poetry. The target language occupies him as we read it in the poetry of his fellow writers of the generation of the thirties, a demotic which is distinguished by uniformity. In this way he moves away from the spirit of the original and – why not? – betrays it, smoothing out those elements which shape its violent linguistic character, i.e. the constant mixing and juxtaposition of different linguistic registers. In contrast, Engonopoulos brings to and preserves in the Greek text the conflicting and different linguistic codes which co-exist in the original. It is the same linguistic venture that we recognise in his writings too. Moreover, in this translation we hear distant echoes of Bolivar, written at about the same time as this translation was made.

The translator as interpreter

Each translation is a double interpretation: the translator interprets the original but also interprets its world. Let us recall Palamas again: “Someone translates the foreign text in the way he translates the feeling and the thought which are, or he thinks are, his own.” Consequently each translation is an intervention in the original work. According to the above reasoning, the problem of faithfulness is a pseudo-problem: there is good or bad translation but faithful translation does not exist. The Romans, on this point, were wiser. Only if we move away from the finding that the translator betrays can the discussion be of substance.

Who, however, will be the judge of whether a translation is good or bad? As a rule, the judge is a user of the target language. The criticism and valuation of the translations is always on the basis of criteria foreign to the original, i.e. on the criteria of the new language into which it has been translated. At this point the question is raised as to whether the translated authors, if they are still alive and have a good command of the target language, are the most suitable people to judge the success of the translation of their work. In this case, and even when they are given the opportunity to collaborate with the translator (something which is put into practice more widely nowadays and also by international programmes of literary translation), again the author is called upon to think his work essentially on the basis of the other language, that is to think an “other” work. He is, in other words, obliged to think the translation of his work with criteria which belong to the target language.

Today, specialists in the field of translation are again posing, on new terms, the question of faithfulness: the translation must follow the original. The method which was preferred earlier was that of analogies or equivalences. That is, the translator sought literary counterparts, mainly with regard to the poetic forms. Since the whole of European literature has been created on the basis of translation or paraphrase or imitation, the finding of counterparts is not something unfeasible, since literary forms such as the sonnet and the ballad have existed across the centuries. The problem becomes evident when, from one civilisation to another or from one epoch to another, the same literary forms do not apply. The dispute in 19th century England between Matthew Arnold and Francis Newman about the translation of Homer’s epics is well-known, as is the corresponding one in Greece which continued till recently. The matter becomes more complex when someone wants to translate Chinese poetry. Also the search for counterparts often creates problems: to what extent is the decapentasyllabic political verse the counterpart of the alexandrine? To what extent is demotic, the language of the anonymous chronicler and memoirist, the counterpart of the language of R.L.Stevenson, in the translation of Treasure Island by Photis Kontoglou? In which works should a translation of the New Testament look for equivalents and into which tradition should it be placed? How satisfying are the translations of the Book of Revelation by George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis?

I have noted certain theoretical and practical questions in relation to literary translation. The translators taking part in this meeting will talk to us about the problems they have faced and about the solutions they have given. We will hear how they examined the foreign originals, how they searched for national equivalents or, even, that in certain cases they had no other solution but to break away from the original and use instead a literary form familiar to the target language.

What the specialists in translation underline today is the emphasis which must be given to the endo-linguistic stage of the translation i.e. to the stage of philological analysis of the original which must precede the translation into the target language. This stage presupposes philological knowledge and the ability to investigate even in the most talented poet. I warmly support this view and can corroborate it with examples from my own teaching experience: many students, in the framework of my course on literary translation, have shown themselves to be very able translators, offering very satisfactory translations of texts which accomplished writers have already translated.

I will conclude with a finding: the activity of translation has the character of continuous experiment and testing. It is experiment because its result cannot be definite or unique, and testing because in it the limits of the freedom of the translator are being tested all the time. Nevertheless, the honest translator, writer or philologist, even the most ardent supporter of faithfulness, knows that of necessity he binds the foreign text to his personal vision, to his understanding of the world, to his aesthetics, that in the final analysis he subjects it to his choices which are always determined temporally, i.e. culturally.

Translated by Christine Georghiades


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